With what looks like sabotage of the Nordstream 1 & 2 pipelines under the Baltic Sea bringing a momentary focus on critical infrastructure on the seabed, now is the perfect time point everyone to Pierre Morcos and Colin Wall's 2021 CSIS commentary, Invisible and Vital: Undersea Cables and Transatlantic Security.
In the national security arena, when conflicts arise people will discuss Ground Lines of Communication (GLOC) and Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) - concepts military professionals concerned with keeping beans, bullets, lawyers, guns, and money flowing have focused on for all of human written history.
In our age, where so much of what goes over GLOC and SLOC relies on the flow of information - voice and data - with few offline backups, is the security of those pathways just as important - the Information Lines of Communication (ILOC)?
I've been guilty as most have with a focus just on the fragility of satellite communications ... but is that where the real threat is to the lifeblood of the information age?
...undersea cables carry over 95 percent of international data. In comparison with satellites, subsea cables provide high capacity, cost-effective, and reliable connections that are critical for our daily lives. There are approximately more than 400 active cables worldwide covering 1.3 million kilometers (half a million miles).
Forget obsessing about what additional bridging equipment we need in light of the lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian War (actually, do keep obsessing about it because we are woefully short) - but instead invest some of your intellectual effort about the challenge of bridging a cut in a cable 1,000nm at sea and 3,000 meters under the water;
The Euro-Atlantic ... carries traffic between the two biggest economic hubs with dozens of cables, the majority of which are between the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Europe relies heavily on these cables as a majority of its data is stored in data centers located in the United States.
he planning, production, deployment, and maintenance of subsea cables are almost entirely in the hands of the private sector. Currently, the four largest suppliers are Alcatel Submarine Networks (France), SubCom (United States), NEC (Japan), and newcomer Huawei Marine Networks (China)...
...In the financial sector alone, undersea cables carry some $10 trillion of financial transfers daily.
There is more than just financial and economic exposure here;
Submarine cables are also critical for transatlantic security as governments rely heavily on this infrastructure for their own communications. Diplomatic cables and military orders largely pass through these privately owned cables as military operated, and classified cables remain marginal. Undersea cable breaks between Egypt and Italy in 2008 led U.S. drone flights in Iraq to decrease sharply from hundreds to tens a day.
...in recent years, Russian attention to transatlantic undersea cables, particularly in the North Atlantic Ocean, has increased commensurately with NATO’s perception of undersea cables’ importance and vulnerability. Moscow has two primary means by which it could directly threaten the cables: submarines and surface vessels that can deploy autonomous or manned submersibles.
On top of physical vulnerability;
More difficult and subtle than destroying the cables is tapping them to record, copy, and steal data, which would be later collected and analyzed for espionage.
Well, 'nuff said on that. Ahem.
This next bit should give you a flash of panic;
Allied governments should also step up their efforts to protect this critical infrastructure from malicious activity. Once allies agree on a shared assessment of vulnerabilities, NATO defense planners could consider setting capability targets to encourage allies to develop appropriate assets, such as surveillance ships or autonomous undersea drones. The United Kingdom has already announced the acquisition of a vessel specifically designed to protect underwater infrastructure. It will be equipped with advanced sensors and underwater drones and is expected to come into service by 2024. In addition to monitoring capabilities, allies could also consider policies to bolster the global fleet of cable repair vessels, which as of now is both overstretched and informally organized. The Fiscal Year 2020 U.S. National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), for example, allocated a small stipend for a program to incorporate two privately owned vessels into a “fleet” the government can activate in a crisis.
Adopt contingency planning in case of major breaks: The United States and its European allies and partners should also develop, in close coordination with the private sector, contingency planning to prepare for the consequences of intended or unintended significant cuts. A focus should be on scenarios where many cables are severed in a short time period, overwhelming the redundancy features that the private sector builds into account for more common, isolated failures.
We are naked, and you should be afraid.
Ask hard questions. Demand action.